There are many grass species native to Kansas, however, relatively few are of major economic importance. This section will be limited to those grasses which have a major impact on the Kansas livestock industry.
Many text books draw a line from north to south through the center of Kansas and refer to the area east of the line as the 'tall-grass region' and west of the line as the 'short-grass region'. In truth, the transition from tall-grass to short-grass is gradual, so much so, as to be almost imperceptible. For example, buffalograss can be found in the easternmost parts of the state and the tall-grasses appear even in the far western counties. While abrupt changes can and do occur due to differences in soils and precipitation, in Central Kansas often the reason certain grasses dominate in a stand is more a function of management rather than a line drawn on a map.
Maximum production from any grass is dependent upon a working knowledge and understanding of the growth and development of that grass. Management must be geared to favor the key species in a grass stand in order to promote the persistence, vigor, and productivity of that grass. On rangeland, this approach to grassland management is critically important.
Cattle are selective grazers when a choice is presented. They prefer some plants to others and will consume those plants first.
Because the grazing animal is selective, unmanaged grazing often results in stands dominated by grass species highly tolerant to grazing or by grasses with poor palatability. Those most preferred grasses are grazed continuously to the point where the carbohydrate reserves are depleted and they are unable to replenish themselves. Some of the most desirable species are the least tolerant to grazing. The height the growing points reach during the grazing season is highly correlated to grazing tolerance. Many grasses (such as blue grama) maintain their growing points near the soil surface until shortly before the onset of heading, while others (like switchgrass) push their growing points up within reach of grazing livestock relatively early in the growing season. If growing points are removed, any new leaf material must come from dormant buds at the base of the grass plants. This "re-growth" is powered by carbohydrate reserves in the roots. Should these reserves become depleted, obviously very little growth will occur.
There are a few tried and true management principles regarding grazing of native grasses. First and foremost is the principle of "controlled grazing". Controlled grazing refers to the practice of leaving enough of the current years growth of the key species within a grass stand to maintain them from one year to the next in a healthy, vigorous state. Carbohydrate reserves stored in the roots of perennial grasses serve as the energy source to begin growth in the spring. If these reserves are depleted by over-grazing in the previous year(s), the grass will be low in vigor, less productive, more susceptible to other stresses, and in extreme cases may die. However, if adequate leaf area is left at the end of the grazing season, carbohydrate reserves will be adequate to insure healthy, vigorous plants the following spring.
"Deferred grazing" is another management principle employed by the serious grassland manager. Its purpose is to allow the more desirable grasses to regain vigor and produce a seed crop. A full season deferment is highly recommended during the first growing season following brush-control measures, severe droughts, or overgrazing.
An "Intensive Management" system involves placing extremely heavy grazing pressure on the grass for relatively short periods of time and then rotating livestock to another pasture and allowing the first pasture to rest sufficiently long enough to regain vigor. This practice favors maximum animal performance and utilization of available forage. However, it does require more input in the form of fencing, ponds or watering systems, and labor.
Intensive grazing is also often used to reduce competition from undesirable grasses within the stand or those invading the stand. For example, if tall fescue is invading a stand of native grass, intensive grazing of the infested area in fall, winter, and early spring with little of no pressure in late spring and the summer months, along with timely burns, can substantially slow and may even reverse the progression of the tall fescue.
Most of the warm-season native grasses are slowly established. The year of establishment usually results in very little top growth. Instead, all energies are devoted to establishing a root system. A common cause of stand failure is competition during the seedling year from weeds. It is very important to control weeds the year before attempting to establish native grasses. There are a few herbicides available for use on native seedings. However, at this time they are all broadleaf herbicides with little or no activity on the troublesome annual grasses. There are herbicides that show great promise in alleviating the annual grass problem. However, to date the chemical companies have demonstrated a great reluctance to adding range plantings to their label.
When either purchasing or selling native grass seed, one should always deal on a pure-live seed (PLS) basis. Pure-live seed is arrived from the following formula:
% Germination x % Pure Seed = % PLS
Example: Lot #001 Kaw Big Bluestem
60% Pure Seed, 80% Germination
60 x 80 = 48% PLS
In other words, in 100 lbs. of this seed lot there are 48 lbs. of actual viable seed.
The warm season native grasses are very chaffy and extremely difficult to harvest and clean. Individual seed lots vary greatly in % PLS. By dealing on a PLS basis, both purchaser and seller are aware of the quality of a particular seed lot and both are able to make intelligent decisions on price and quantity needed to achieve desired stands.
Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) is a dominant species of the tall-grass complex. A warm-season perennial native grass, big bluestem often grows to heights in excess of six feet. This grass has a strong deep root system with short rhizomes. Big bluestem is a highly praised forage grass, as well as an exceptional conservation species.
Best suited to loamy soils, big bluestem produces an abundance of wide bladed leaves highly palatable to all classes of livestock. In pure stands or mixtures, it provides the soil excellent protection against erosion. It builds soil organic matter rapidly through the decomposition of roots and tops. Big bluestem provides good quality forage throughout the summer months and makes fair winter roughage. For these reasons, big bluestem is often a preferred component species of grass mixtures when retiring cropland to meadows and pastures in eastern Kansas.
Use and Management:
Big bluestem is a prize forage species - highly nutritious, it is widely used for pasture and hay. Big bluestem is one of the best quality forages in June, July, and August available to Kansas livestock producers. It is also routinely utilized for wildlife habitat, reclamation of disturbed soils and erosion control.
Grazing should be deferred or grazing pressure substantially reduced every two to three years for two to four months before seed ripens to allow plants to regain vigor and produce a seed crop. Responsive to nitrogen fertilization and irrigation, big bluestem is well suited to intensive grazing for short durations with long periods of rest between utilization.
Hay meadows should not be grazed during the growing season and only moderately during late fall and winter. The best quality hay is cut in July, however, greater forage yield is achieved if cut in August.
Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is a long-lived perennial warm-season native grass. A bunch grass with or without rhizomes, little bluestem grows to a height of two to four feet. Widely adapted, it can be found in every county in Kansas.
An excellent quality forage in early stages of development, little bluestem loses palatability and quality as maturity approaches. It is more drought tolerant than other grasses associated with the tall-grass complex i.e. big bluestem, indiangrass, switchgrass, etc., and persists longer under heavy grazing pressure on loamy to clay textured soils in drier climates.
Use and Management:
Primary usage of little bluestem is for hay and pasture and game bird cover. It is also an excellent conservation grass. Because of its growth habit and wide range of adaptability to climate and soil types, little bluestem has great merit for use in water channels, reclamation of mined lands, and erosion control.
To maintain plant vigor, no more than 50% of the current years growth should be grazed off. Grazing should be deferred or grazing pressure reduced substantially for 90 days every two to three years before seed maturity to allow the grass to regain vigor and produce seed.
If cut for hay, a four inch stubble should be left to promote recovery. The hay crop should be taken toward the end of July or the first of August to achieve best quality.
Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans) is a major range grass species in the eastern one-half of Kansas. It is widely distributed throughout the United States east of the Rocky Mountains. Indiangrass is a tall vigorous bunch grass with wide leaves and a striking bronze or yellow plume-like seed head. Indiangrass forms rhizomes from which four to six feet tall stalks arise. The species is highly regarded as an excellent quality forage utilized for pasture or hay. Indiangrass, of all the tall warm-season native grasses, has the greatest potential to be utilized east of the Great Plains states.
Indiangrass thrives on deep, moist soil varying from heavy clays to coarse sands. It tolerates moderate soil acidity and moderate salinity. While tolerant to flooding, it is perhaps the least tolerant of the warm-season native grasses to drought.
Use and Management:
Indiangrass is an excellent quality forage used either for grazing or haying. It is also routinely utilized for erosion control, game-bird cover, and grass-lined water channels.
Indiangrass can tolerate close grazing much better than the other grasses of the tall-grass complex, and responds well to fertilization under irrigated or high rainfall conditions. For these reasons, indiangrass is often planted and managed in pure stands. In an intensive grazing study conducted in Bourbon County, Kansas, steers grazing pure indiangrass averaged daily gains of nearly 3 lbs. from mid-June through mid-September. (Bourbon Co. SCS 1984).
While indiangrass is grazing tolerant, it never-the-less is one of the first species to go if grasslands are mismanaged. Because indiangrass remains palatable for the entire growing season, livestock tend to search it out and consume it in preference to other grasses in the association. On sites that have a high percentage of indiangrass in the plant community, it is the key management species. On less productive sites, its presence indicates that the range is in good to excellent condition.
Sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula) is a warm-season native perennial grass. It possesses an extensive fibrous root system. It is very winter hardy and drought resistant and is adapted to a wide range of soil and climatic conditions. Most commonly found in mixture with blue grama, buffalograss, and little bluestem; it predominates in this association on shallow soils, steeply sloping lands, deep sand and exposed sites.
Sideoats grama is prized for wildlife plantings and is an exceptional conservation grass. Seedling vigor is excellent compared to other warm-season native grasses and establishment is relatively easy.
Growth begins in mid-Spring and maturity is reached in late July or early August. Plant height at maturity is approximately three feet. Sideoats grama produces a leafy forage that is palatable to all classes of livestock. Good quality hay may be produced if cut timely.
Use and Management:
Native stands are most often utilized for pasture and less commonly for hay. Because of its wide adaptability, rapid establishment and deep extensive root system, sideoats grama is an excellent conservation grass. It is routinely used on eroding and disturbed sites and grass-lined water channels. Sideoats grama is also prized for wildlife seedings. The seeds are relished by songbirds and small mammals use it for cover and food.
Sideoats grama responds well to rotational deferred grazing systems. These management systems allow the most efficient and effective utilization of available forage. For stand maintenance and productivity, sideoats grama should be allowed to mature seed every two to three years.
Blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis) is a warm-season native perennial grass found throughout the short-grass region from Texas to Canada and is also important in parts of the desert grasslands. Blue grama is usually found in association with buffalograss and in the northern area of its adaptation with the wheatgrasses. In the more southern areas, blue grama can and often does occur in near pure stands.
A typical short-grass, blue grama seldom grows taller than 12 to 20 inches. In semi-arid areas, blue grama is often utilized as a turf grass. It forms a dense sod and its narrow leaves can make an attractive lawn. For turf, blue grama is usually seeded in mixture with buffalograss. A mixture of one part buffalograss to two parts of blue grama produces an extremely drought tolerant and low maintenance turf.
Adapted to a wide range of soils and climate, blue grama produces a highly nutritious forage during the summer months. Forage remaining in the fall makes good winter pasture if allowed to cure standing. Tolerant to alkaline soils, blue grama is the most drought tolerant of the major grasses on the Great Plains.
Use and Management:
Adapted to a wide range of soil types, blue grama is used in range seedings, conservation plantings, wildlife habitat plantings, roadsides, and as a turf grass in semi-arid regions of the Great Plains.
Native stands are most often utilized for range and pasture. It produces an excellent quality forage and with the exception of buffalograss, it's the most grazing tolerant grass on the Great Plains.
Blue grama is routinely used for revegetating abandoned croplands and disturbed areas. Birds relish the seeds and small mammals consume seed heads and plants.
Since growing points are at or near the soil surface for most of the season, blue grama tolerates close grazing. For best performance, defer grazing every two to three years during the growing season and graze no more than 50% of the current years growth by weight.
Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) is a vigorous perennial warm-season, sod-forming grass. It generally grows in association with the bluestems throughout the tall-grass region.
The switchgrasses can be divided into two groups, bottom-land and upland types. Bottom-land types, i.e. 'Kanlow' occur in river bottom areas. They are taller, more robust and have a bunch type growth habit. Upland types are generally shorter and finer, have longer rhizomes that produce a spreading but open sod. Upland types, i.e. 'Blackwell', 'Pathfinder', etc., are usually four to five feet tall.
Switchgrass begins growth in mid to late spring and matures in mid to late summer. It is highly palatable to all classes of livestock until the onset of heading at which time quality rapidly decreases.
Use and Management:
Switchgrass is used in both pure and mixed stands for grazing and hay, wildlife food and cover, as well as for grass-lined water channels and erosion control.
Switchgrass responds to proper grazing use and periodic deferments of 100 days at any point in the growing season. For maximum production of good quality hay, meadows should not be grazed in early spring and hay crops should be harvested at or before the onset of heading. Hay meadows can be grazed moderately in late fall.
Agropoyron smithii Western wheatgrass is a cool-season native perennial sod-forming grass. It has a deep fibrous root system with vigorous rhizomes that effectively protect the soil from wind and water erosion. It is a major rangeland species in the northern and central Great Plains. Western wheatgrass is widely adapted to varying soil and climatic conditions. Where soil is favorable and moisture plentiful, western wheatgrass may be found in nearly pure stands. On upland sites it is commonly found in association with the grama grasses.
Western wheatgrass starts growth early in the spring and produces a high protein forage relished by all classes of livestock. Plants at maturity attain a height of two to three feet. This grass goes dormant during the hot/dry months, but makes further growth in early fall. Established stands of western wheatgrass can endure long periods of severe drought, tolerate flooding, soil salinity, poor drainage, and withstand heavy grazing pressure.
Use and Management:
Widely used for pasture and hay, western wheatgrass is also an excellent grass for erosion control, critical area stabilization, grass-lined water channels, and surface mine reclamation.
Well suited to intensive grazing systems, western wheatgrass provides high quality forage when the warm-season natives are at their worst. For maximum production on rangeland, defer grazing every few years at least 90 days before seed heads exert. Protect this grass from grazing throughout the growing season if it is managed for seed harvest or hay. Graze only moderately during the dormant period.
Intermediate Wheatgrass is an important cool season, sod forming grass that was introduced into the U. S. from the U.S.S.R. It is easily established from seed and covers well the first year after planting.
Intermediate Wheatgrass is used for pasture and hay in areas which receive more than 15 inches of precipitation. It has been known to grow well at altitudes up to 10,000 feet.
Use and Management:
Intermediate Wheatgrass grows best in finer textured, sany loam to clay loam soil types. It has fair drought, salt, high water table and flooding tolerance. With its extensive root system, it is often used to stabilize soil and also for wildlife plantings.
Tall Wheatgrass (Agropyron elongatum) is an introduced wheatgrass, brought into the United States from Turkey and the U.S.S.R. It is a tall, vigorous, cool-season, bunchgrass that is the latest maturing grass adapted to the continental climatic areas of the Western United States. Tall Wheatgrass is especially tolerant of saline and alkali soils and high yields are obtained even to elevations of 7,500 feet. Plants mature late in the season, producing a large seed that is easily planted. On strong alkali or under drought conditions, leaves become a darker blue-green, but with adequate moisture and fertility, growth will begin early and continue into the late summer.
Use and Management:
On saline soils, saltgrass should be eliminated, good drainage provided. and the salts leached or flushed off. Stands are best established in good seedbeds with a deep furrow drill in early spring. The seedlings are slow to establish and light irrigation at 2 to 3 day intervals in the furrows is required until seedlings are 4 to 6 inches tall. With surface irrigation, salts from the soil accumulate on the ridges, allowing the seeds in the bottom of the furrow to sprout and grow. Continuous irrigation reduces salt concentration. Planting without irrigation is possible if adequate precipitation occurs. On less salty soils, Tall Wheatgrass is often planted with alfalfa in alternate rows.
Seedlings require one full season of protection before grazing use, two seasons on dry sites. Tall wheatgrass fields should be fenced from other fields to get good utilization. When more palatable species are available, Tall Wheatgrass will only be sparsely utilized. When new growth is 8 to 10 inches high, spring grazing can begin. When plants start to head, pastures should be clipped back to an 8 inch stubble.
Tall Wheatgrass production will drop rapidly from year to year unless a high level of soil nitrogen is present. The usual rate is 40 to 80 pounds/acre as determined by a soil test. Nitrogen additions will greatly increase production and the amount of cover.
Eastern Gamagrass (Tripsacum dactyloides) is a stout, native perennial grass grown from Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle to the east coast. This grass was once abundant on hundreds of thousands of acres but is now common only in areas protected from grazing because of its high palatability to livestock. With robust stems and strong rhizomes, this grass will reach heights of 3 to 8 feet. It grows in fertile bottomland, swamps and along streambanks and, under good management, can be found in upland areas as well.
This grass has good forage value for livestock. It also provides excellent cover and nesting area for wildlife. Eastern gamagrass has a long inflorescence with large seeds that are used by numerous species of birds and small mammals for food.
Use and Management:
Eastern Gamagrass provides excellent forage for grazing and haying. Gamagrass is so palatable to livestock that careful controlled grazing practices must be followed to keep cattle from destroying the stand. Short duration, high intensity rotation programs that give Gamagrass a 28-42 day rest period work best and still maintain plant vigor.
Gamagrass will produce forage yields of 8-10 tons of dry matter per acre. It does require plenty of water to produce maximum yields. Eastern Gamagrass flourishes where precipitation exceeds 35 inches, does respectable in regions of 25 inches annual precipitation and does very well under irrigation.
Buchloe dactyloides Buffalograss is a deeply rooted native perennial grass, important in the short-grass region from Texas to South Dakota. It is found primarily on soils with fairly high clay content and does not perform well on sandy soils. This grass spreads rapidly by means of surface runners and forms a dense, matted growth five to eight inches tall. Buffalograss is predominantly dioecious (individual plants are either male or female), with male and female plants occurring in nearly equal frequency.
Growth begins in mid-Spring and continues all summer. The forage is highly palatable to all classes of livestock. Buffalograss is fairly easy to establish and spreads vigorously under grazing pressure. It withstands prolonged heavy grazing better than any other grass native to the plains states. In fact, in western Kansas on range heavily grazed every year, it commonly survives as a nearly pure stand.
Use and Management:
Buffalograss is widely used in the short-grass region for pasture and erosion control. It is also utilized for turf in semi-arid regions.
Buffalograss withstands heavy grazing and is ideally suited to intensive grazing systems. It has an excellent reputation as cured winter feed. Livestock usually harvest less than 50% of the current years growth because this grass grows so close to the ground. However, continuous close grazing can result in weakened plants and reduce the next seasons production.
Elymus canadensis Canada Wildrye is a robust, cool season bunchgrass that is native to the United States. Growth of this plant will range from 2 to 4 feet in height. Canada Wildrye forms seed stalks that will be 3 to 5 feet in height and bluish green in color. Because it is a cool season plant, Canada Wildrye will begin its growth in the fall and continue to grow until the temperatures are consistently below 30 degrees Fahrenheit.
This is not true in areas of the northern United States, where growth can continue even when temperatures drop into the low 20-degree range. Growth will resume in early spring and continue into summer if moisture conditions are favorable. Where found, Canada Wildrye grows fairly abundantly. It is found in open sunny areas, but also thrives in shaded areas along timber borders and in the damper areas of the bottomlands.
Use and Management:
In the past ten years, use of Canada Wildrye has expanded. It is now considered a desirable component of re-established prairies, native wildlife habitat and areas prone to excess moisture.
Establishment of Canada Wildrye is relatively rapid but it may take a year before weeds are crowded out. The first good seed crop should be expected the second year after planting. The grass will continue to do well for about two - four years and then will gradually decline, to 7 - 10 years eventually disappear. When planted as a wildlife-planting component, re-seeding from existing plants should insure new growth for a long period.